DENVER — From wax to bronze, Ed Dwight brings sculptures to life in his Denver studio. Miles Davis, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are among the African American greats he’s memorialized in art. But before he started welding metal, Dwight made history himself.
“I entered the military back in 1953,” Dwight, now 90 years old, said. He moved up the ranks as an Air Force pilot.
“I had a wonderful career going in 1961 when I got a letter,” he said. The John F. Kennedy White House asked him to go from flying military jets to preparing for space.
“I thought it was craziest thing I've ever heard. I had absolutely zero interest in being an astronaut,” he said. “But my mother got into the mix... In her mind, it was, ‘Well, look what you could do for the race,’ and all that kind of stuff.”
It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and others in the Black community also expected Dwight to stand up for his people.
"I wasn't there to save the race. I was there to go into space,” Dwight said.
He headed to the Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County, California, to train alongside NASA astronauts, as part of a new military space program.
“I'm busy with the books and my flying,” Dwight said. But between the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement, “I was in the middle of all of this tug of war... the Black community was upset with me because I wasn't talking about Black struggle,” he said. “I couldn't do that because it’s against Air Force regulations.
"I finished the space program thing, and then everything was fine until the president got assassinated,” he said.
After Kennedy’s death, Dwight never went to space. The story of his thwarted mission to go to the Moon will be featured in a National Geographic documentary, "The Space Race," airing later this month.
After Lyndon B. Johnson became president, Dwight said the government no longer wanted to support him as an astronaut.
“They wanted to erase me out of history,” he said. “So I left the military and moved to Denver.”
He started real estate and construction businesses and opened restaurants serving ribs inspired by his upbringing in Kansas City. Then, construction led to art.
"I would go to all of my construction sites and pick up all the metal off the ground — pipes, pieces of metal... and I taught myself how to weld,” he said.
Then Colorado’s first Black Lieutenant Governor George Brown bought one of Dwight’s small sculptures and asked him if he could make a life-size bust for the State Capitol.
"I laughed at him and said, ‘Go find somebody that does that because that's not what I do. I weld nails together, man.’ And he told me to go get a book,” Dwight said.
Dwight read up on sculpture making and Black U.S. history.
"I had no idea what the Black community was going through, and then when I started reading all this history, my God, it was so much,” Dwight said.
He started making memorials honoring figures of Black history. The U.S. Park Service helped display the art across the country, and told him, “You're the first Black sculptor that makes people look like themselves,” Dwight said.
“My engineering background jumped right into the middle of this thing, and I did a thing called facial mapping,” he said. When he sculpted former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, he said he gathered about 100 photos with different angles of their faces. He used calipers and a technique he calls “facial engineering.”
Now 90 years old, Dwight said he’s proud of helping make Denver a Black art hub, even as some told him, “You ain’t gonna get anything good coming out of Colorado.”
"I twisted the standard on its head,” Dwight said. "This guy from Colorado has a statement to make.”